(January 15, 2034, or very soon after.)
I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.
Crouched behind the wall of tires, Shoko tried to relax. It didn't help that two Jinsei Ashigaru sat idling just outside the gates to Bell's Motors. The buildings of Neo York were just bright enough to backlight the vehicles, allowing her to just pick out the roof-mounted machine-guns, each with an attendant gunner.
She swallowed and flexed her fingers. Her mouth was dry and her palms felt sweaty. Funny—she'd figured it for the other way around. Over to her right she could just see Dawn, who held her Ingram loosely in one hand and had one of Bell's Molotov cocktails in the other. Glancing down, Shoko picked up her own bottle, cradling her pulse rifle in her left hand. In a few moments the bottle's contents was likely to be spread all over one of the lightly-armored personnel carriers and nothing would be the same ever again.
With a grinding of gears, the two vehicles bounced into the front yard, spotlights bobbing over the sight of piled tires and a seemingly empty repair garage and house trailer. Shoko gritted her teeth... this was it, there was going to be no turning back now.
The two vehicles pulled to a stop amid a cloud of dust and the crunching of gravel. Doors opened and men stepped out. Shoko caught glimpses of back-and-breast clamshell armor, helmets, face-masks with rebreathers, and light armored plates on forearms and shins. Jinsei was going all out with their urban combat gear. Worse yet were the M-60 pulse rifles the soldiers carried. They might not have packed the punch of her M-100, but they did have 60 rounds apiece, more than enough to kill everyone in the garage several times over.
For a moment—just a moment—all was calm. The soldiers remained behind the opened doors of their cars, spotlights and the red dots of underslung laser sights wandering over the deserted vista before them. There was the muffled sound of voices, the crackle of a radio, and the overly loud sound of her heartbeat in her ears.
And then a Molotov cocktail came spinning out of the darkness to shatter against the side of one of the Ashigaru, spraying flaming liquid in all directions. For once Shoko was thankful of her hard-wired combat programming. Her own bottle was arcing through the air before she even thought to throw it, followed by a burst of 10mm explosive-tipped rounds from her pulse rifle. More bottles impacted around the first car as both sides opened up with every weapon they had at their disposal.
Shoko's target was the second armored personnel carrier. The first one was being battered by the combined firepower of the rest of the garage's defenders, so it was up to her to make sure the other one didn't get away. The initial burst starred the windshield white, and then she tracked the stream of bullets up to riddle the roof gunner. More rounds tore into the hood and grill, then the tires exploded. Flashes from the doors indicated where soldiers were shooting back, but the discarded tires piled around her managed to deflect most of the shots.
Holding the rifle tight to her body, Shoko never let up on the trigger, the weapon spitting out rounds in a constant stream. Instead of aiming, she simply walked her fire from target to target. The windshield powdered under the barrage and then Shoko thumbed the stud for the grenade launcher. A hollow thump and a faint kick marked the 20mm round's passage as its flat trajectory carried it right into the passenger compartment. The resulting explosion blew out the rest of the vehicle's windows and sent an unlucky trooper flying.
Standing without realizing she'd done so, Shoko continued to fire, concentrating on the bodies she saw silhouetted by the flames of the now-burning vehicle. Only when the rifle's action jammed did she lay off the trigger, finally noticing the blinking "00" on the LED readout. Thumbing the ejection switch, she dropped the spent magazine on the ground, sliding in a fresh one, and then popped in the spare grenade CK had given her earlier to replace the one she'd fired. Only then did she look over to see how everyone else had aired.
The first Ashigaru was fully ablaze, the flames rapidly consuming the vehicle and all it might have carried. Bodies lay scattered about in the ground, and as she watched Dawn stepped out from the shelter of the tires to kick a trooper's helmet off. A single shot later and the trooper was assuredly dead, what with the back of his head now all over the concrete pad. Kneeling beside the corpse, Dawn then grabbed his pulse rifle, checking its load before starting to strip the man's armor off. Shoko flipped up her helmet's visor and started to say something but stopped herself. Who was she to tell Dawn what to do? If they could glean weapons and armor from the enemy, so much the better. Hell, if their M-60's used the same ammo as her M-100, she'd be scavenging reloads from their bodies herself.
Noticing a dull ache in her own left side, she looked down to find two round chips, like tiny craters, in her CBA. Bullet impact points, she realized, shocked. She'd been hit twice during the firefight and hardly even noticed! The ceramic polymer armor that made up her CBA was sure something. She hated to think what would have happened to her without it...
"Hey, is everyone alright?" she called, suddenly concerned. Dawn quickly answered and across the compound she could see Bell tying a rag around what looked to be a minor wound on Ayane's left arm.
Hearing a groan nearby, Shoko called again. "CK? You okay?"
"No..." CK's pain-filled voice called weakly from behind a stack of tires. "Help."
Running over, Shoko found him lying on his back, pale and panting, the front of his shirt soaked with blood. "Aww... hell," said Shoko softly as she knelt for a closer look. Pulling his shirt aside, she probed as gently as she could around the wound, but CK writhed in pain and she quickly desisted.
Shoko sat back. "Well, the good news is, it's high enough that it missed the lung. Looks like your shoulder took the brunt of the damage. I can't tell for sure if the collarbone's broken, though. Might be." She shook her head. "In any event, you're not using that arm for awhile."
"Well shit," gasped CK. "And here I was gonna go mountain climbing tomorrow..."
A moment later Dawn, now clad in an ex-Jinsei trooper's armor, arrived with the first-aid kit that represented the bulk of their medical supplies. She quickly slapped an analgesic patch on CK's neck, and then pressed a cloth to his wounded shoulder, making him hiss in pain.
"We need to rig a sling to immobilize that arm," she said.
Shoko nodded. "Can you do that on your own? I wanna go look for Ken and André. I ain't seen 'em since the fight, and I'm getting kinda worried, y' know?"
Dawn nodded. "Yeah, I can handle this. Go."
Standing, Shoko could hear Ayane telling Bell she was fine. "Dawn, you better leave some for the rest of us!" the modified Lynx called out.
"André? Ken?" Leaving CK to Dawn, Shoko headed over to where the two had been stationed. Behind the wall of tires she could feel the heat from the burning Ashigaru, the cracking of lames interspersed with the pop of ammunition cooking off. Armor and tires or not, she still couldn't keep from ducking at the sound.
"Ken? Andr---..." Shoko tried to finish her friend's name but couldn't. He was sitting on the concrete pad, his AR-15 forgotten beside him, holding Ken upright in a sitting position. The both of them looked to be covered in bright red blood, so much so, that Shoko couldn't tell who had been hit. As she stepped closer André looked up at her. "I think he's dead, Shoko."
"Oh no." Her stomach clenched as she dropped to her knees in front of them. Ken's chest, she saw, was a ruin of torn flesh. One look at his staring eyes, the surprised look on his face, and she knew he was dead—she'd seen the same expression on Nagate's face right after he'd been killed. Even so, she reached out to his neck, fingers pressing into the carotid artery, looking for pulse that wasn't there...
After a time, her hand fell away and she nodded briefly. "Yes. He's dead," she said softly, then reached up and gently pulled his eyes closed.
André's only response was choked sob.
Despite her grief for Ken, Shoko knew she must focus her attention on the living right now. "What about you, André?" she asked him. "Are you wounded? Is any of this blood yours?"
"I..." he swallowed, tears trickling down his cheeks. "I think so. I don't think I can stand up."
For a moment she feared he might have spinal damage and felt her stomach clench all over again, but then she looked down and realized he meant he'd been shot in the leg. The wound wasn't squirting, so the femoral artery hadn't been hit. But he was still losing too much blood, and that had to be stopped right away.
"Dawn!" she called. "Dawn, I need your help if you can leave CK! Or toss me a compress and some bandages!"
A few moments later she was joined by both the singer and the fixer, who was doing the best he could to carry some of the medical kit in his good hand. They both dropped down beside her, CK fumbling out bandages as Dawn handed them over to Shoko.
She glanced up at him. "Yeah," she said sadly. "I'm afraid so."
"I... I see..." CK wiped his eyes on his jacket sleeve. "Bell know?"
Shoko shook her head. "No," she said. "I... I don't know how to tell her."
"That's not good," Dawn replied.
"No, it isn't." Shoko glanced across the yard, where Bell was just finishing up her work on Ayane, and sighed. "She strong, but... I just don't know how she'll take this. And, uh... I think she's about to come over here."
"Talk to her Shoko," Dawn shoved the synth's shoulder. "Get over there before she gets over here."
André groaned as Shoko tightened a bandage around his leg. "Shoko," he hissed, "Dawn's right. Tell her before she sees this. CK, get Ayane over her. We gotta get the truck and get outta here."
Shoko wanted to swear, but couldn't find words nasty enough. Looking over, she saw that Bell starting to head in their direction, looking concerned. "Aw damn!" she muttered, and quickly headed over to intercept her before she got close enough to see Ken's body past the remains of the tire barricade.
"Bell..." she started as she reached the other woman, blocking her way.
"What? What's happening? Is André hurt? " asked Bell in a rush, trying to look past her.
Shoko swallowed, not knowing what to say, but determined to try. "Uh... well yes, André's hurt, but--"
"How badly?" Bell tried to push past her. "Will he be okay?"
"Bell, stop!" Shoko cried, grabbing her shoulders. "Forget about André, he'll be okay! I'm trying to tell you... it's..." She paused for just one second.
Shoko nodded mutely. "He's..." She watched Bell's face go ashen with fear, and felt her own eyes tearing up again, as her stomach twisted itself into knots. ""Bell, I'm sorry. Ken..."
Any further words were useless as Bell shoved her self free from Shoko and ran past, to were Dawn and CK crouched near André's prone body.
"He's dead, Bell," Shoko finished to empty air.
"The truck's packed and ready to go," Ayane said softly as she adjusted her slightly used Jinsei body armor. "I suppose we can leave anytime."
"Good. Let's get moving," replied Dawn. She gestured toward the two burning Ashigarus and the scattered corpses around them. "Somebody's going to miss those guys eventually and come looking for them."
André grimaced in pain as he hobbled over on his makeshift crutch. "What about...we can't just leave him here."
"I'm going to put him inside the garage and burn it down."
Everyone looked at Bell. It was the first thing she'd said since she'd stopped sobbing several minutes earlier. "You want to burn down the garage?" Ayane finally spoke up.
Bell sniffed and wiped her eyes. "That's right. Ken loved the garage; he should be laid to rest there. They can go together. It's only fitting."
"Bell...the garage is mostly concrete and cinderblock," ventured Shoko cautiously. "I don't think it'll burn."
"We'll spread some gasoline around," Bell answered distractedly, staring into the distance. "It'll burn."
"Well...yeah, maybe. It would gut the place, anyway." Shoko bit her lower lip in indecision. She realized she'd been clinging to some forlorn hope of somehow returning here when this was all over. "Okay, let's do it. Let's give him a pyre they'll see on the other side of the river!"
The sun was just starting to make its appearance known by the time they finished the preparations. Ken lay in the middle of his beloved garage, on a bed of tires and wooden pallets, covered with a sheet stinking of ethanol. More fuel had been poured on the floor and splashed on the walls, alone with piles of scrap wood and other debris. Even considering the concrete and cinderblock skeleton, the garage looked like it's burn quite well.
They stood there, watching and waiting, as Bell bowed her head in a silent prayer. The whole Zone seemed to have quieted for just this moment, and for once the sounds of distant shooting had vanished. Then Shoko's ears twitched.
Her ear twitched again.
Everyone had time to throw themselves flat as searing *crack* announced the arrival of an ion cannon discharge. Then, with a deafening blast and a walloping slap of air, one of the Ashigaru exploded, scattering fragments. Jinsei had returned.
Slapping her helmet visor shut, Shoko risked raising her head for a look. No troops in sight, just a trio of metallic blue-gray cyberdroids entering the compound at a run. Apparently, Jinsei didn't think they were worth capturing and had decided to simply exterminate them instead.
Another energy discharge shot over her head and blew an almost man-sized hole in the wall of the garage behind them.
"Run!" she yelled at the others as she scrabbled to her feet. "Get to the truck - I'll keep 'em off your back!"
Ignoring Ayane's protest, she quickly moved away from her friends and fired a quick burst at the advancing 'droids. She didn't care much if she hit them; she just wanted them aware that she was shooting at them.
Unless overridden by their mission objective, a cyberdroid's normal programming was to treat the greatest threat as the highest priority target. As long as she was the only one firing at them, they should come after her first. That might buy everyone else a chance to flee to safety... if she could stay alive long enough to keep the mechanical killers distracted.
She fired another burst in their general direction and dived behind a pile of tires just as the cyberdroids returned her fire. Multiple ion-blasts shot over her, close enough that she felt the wash of heat even through her CBA. Burning tires and other debris went flying, and the outside wall of the garage got yet another hole blown in it.
Throwing off a smoldering tire that had fallen on her, Shoko stuck her M-100 over what was left of the barricade and fired a round from the under-slung grenade launcher. It missed, but let the machines know she was still alive and fighting, which was all that really mattered.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse as the others ducked out of site around the far corner of the garage, André and his injured leg unceremoniously slung over Ayane's armored shoulder in a fireman's carry. She'd have to keep the cyberdroids occupied at least another fifteen or twenty seconds before they'd be safely away.
A glance showed one cyberdroid out in front of the others. There was a hiss and a roar as it jetted forward on its thrusters. Behind it the other two combat machines spat searing bolts of energy, sweeping the beams in broad arcs, slashing at tires, walls, vehicles, and anything else that could be used as cover. Super-heated wood exploded into gouts of flame, while rubber burned and bubbled, releasing acrid black smoke.
With nowhere else to go, Shoko backed up, firing short bursts, ducking from object to object, trying to stay one step ahead of the relentess trio of machines. Having no choice, she took refuge in what was left of the garage, trying to not look at Ken's motionless corpse—or the ruin his life's work had become.
The lead cyberdroid charged in after her, ion-cannon slicing swathes through the surrounding walls. She ducked out the side door into a nearby storage room, maneuvering to get to the back door. With a bit of luck, she might reach the truck before they had to pull out.
As she entered the hallway leading to the rear exit, one of the energy beams punched through the wall beside her and sent her flying in an explosion of debris. Pain flared in her side as she struggled to regain her footing, and she could only wonder how bad she would have been hurt if the wall hadn't taken the brunt of the blast. She quickly fired a pair of grenades from her M-100 back through the hole, hoping to create enough smoke and chaos to at least briefly confuse the automatons pursuing her.
From the direction of the back door, she could make out the sound of an engine revving hard. As she reached the door, she heard a shotgun blast followed by the sound of pistol fire. Stepping out, she saw that one of the other cyberdroids had apparently gone over the building with its jumpjets, and was just landing beside the truck.
With it that close to her friends, she couldn't risk a grenade or even automatic gunfire, so she drew her Stormbreaker and fired it's three rounds. As powerful as 15mm bullets were, they were never intended to damage something as tough as a combat cyberdroid, and they did little more than put dents in the mechanical killers armor... and get it's attention.
It turned its head to face her, glassy port of its ion-cannon winking from its mouth, and Shoko ran back into the garage. The doorway disintegrated as the ion discharge struck where she'd been only a moment before. Behind her, she heard wheels spinning in gravel as the truck pulled out and hoped the 'droid was intent on her now instead of her friends.
She had one chance for survival left, she thought. Ken just might save her yet. If she could get to the bike he'd built for her, she just might manage to escape on it. It wasn't great odds, but...
Another actinic energy beam blew through a nearby support pillar, and she quickly crouched down, trying to guess where the cyberdroid that had fired that one was through the haze of concrete and plaster dust.
Movement her caught her eye and she looked up just in time to see ceiling collapsing on her head, then darkness.
Only the dead have seen the end of war
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